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Numb and Normal: Phantom Fears of an Indifferent America

Special Report

Benjamin Radford

March 8, 2018

Following many outrages—ranging from school shootings to real or perceived un-American actions by Donald Trump and others—it’s common to hear concerns that Americans are “numb” to terrors and that the transgressions are becoming so routine and “normal” that citizens have lost their ability to be outraged.

However, the reaction to the latest school shooting in Florida suggests that Americans are anything but numb or indifferent to the violence. Gun control advocate (and shooting survivor) Gabby Giffords tweeted on February 14, “The accounts from today’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, strike fear into all Americans. Is it safe to send our kids to school? Are we safe in our homes and communities?” People do not protest against events, situations, and conditions that they consider normal or ones that they are numb to. Yet in the weeks since the latest attack, protests and boycotts have become common.

Fear of Numbness

The concern that Americans are numb to violence is widespread and often shared on social and news media. It’s a common claim among pundits and politicians: In an October 1, 2015, speech shortly after a shooting in Eugene, Oregon, President Obama “said that given the frequency of mass shootings, people had ‘become numb to this.... And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation.”

The Washington Post followed up two months later with an article titled “President Obama’s Right: Americans Might Be Growing Numb to Mass Shootings. Here’s Why.” The piece explores a few reasons why a steady stream of violence could desensitize the public.

The author, Colby Itkowitz, did himself no favors—among psychologists and skeptics, anyway—by referencing dubious and discredited theories about the influence of video game violence on real-world violence. (Donald Trump was widely ridiculed recently for suggesting just such a link.)

I encountered an article in The New York Times titled “A School Attack Every Other Day,” with the subhead “Fears of a ‘Numb’ Nation as 2 Die in Kentucky.”

The article, by Alan Blinder and Daniel Victor, quoted former senior FBI official Katherine W. Schweit as saying, “We have absolutely become numb to these kinds of shootings, and I think that will continue” and former Department of Education official William Modzeleski: “I think we’ve become somewhat desensitized to the fact that these things happened.”

However, as I read it, there seemed to be a central question that remained glaringly unanswered, and it’s a basic one: By what measure do we know Americans are becoming “numb” (or desensitized) to school shootings or violence in general? That word, or variations of it, appears multiple times in the piece, including in the subheading and the pull quote on page A18. I reached out to Times journalist Blinder with the following query:

Are you aware of any surveys or polls in which Americans report caring less about recent school shootings than earlier ones? Or is news media coverage an indicator? Shannon Watts is quoted in your article as suggesting some link between short news cycles and American numbness to the tragedy, though that seems a very imprecise marker, since what is reported is less a function of what Americans are numb to (or consider to be of import) than what journalists and news editors consider to be newsworthy. I know there are many factors that determine how much coverage a crime news story gets (including if there’s an ongoing threat to the community; if there’s a famous person involved; if there’s an angle that can hook into a larger story, etc.). The fact that the Kentucky shooting is not getting wall-to-wall coverage on CNN—as some previous school shootings have—does not necessarily mean that Americans don’t care about it, are numb to it, or have lost the ability to be outraged by it.

Alternatively, Schweit suggests that numbness may be correlated with “taking shootings more seriously than we were before,” but I don’t know what that means: Are Americans taking shootings any less seriously today than five or ten years ago? By what measure does Schweit determine this? Enacting gun laws? Responding to polls indicating how concerned people are with various social problems? Surely there must be ways to measure how seriously Americans take school shootings—and, by extension, how “numb” we are to them—but they are nowhere to be found in your reporting. 

I’m sure you didn’t intend to be vague, but neither your piece nor the experts quoted in it offer a clear definition of American “numbness” to tragedies such as the one in Kentucky, nor any real evidence of it. It’s possible that Americans may be becoming “numb” or inured to school shootings (or shootings or violence in general), but without some measurement such as polls, research, surveys, or the like, a central thesis of your piece comes off as little more than speculation and conjecture instead of verifiable fact. I’d appreciate any clarification you can provide.

Neither Blinder nor Victor responded. Journalists are rarely interested in examining their role in sensationalizing and promoting alarmist news stories; news analyses are best done at arm’s length lest the mirror’s reflection become uncomfortably close.

Fear of Normalization

The concern over American “numbness” is related to another issue that’s come to the fore over the past year: fear of normalization. Many pundits and commentators on social media (especially when commenting on something that President Trump did) rush to remind others that “This is not normal!” There are countless examples, including former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s appearance on the Emmys (one story was headlined, “The Emmy’s Normalization of Sean Spicer Dangerously Rewarded a White House Official Who Lied”).

Yet there’s little evidence that the fears of “normalization” have been borne out; this is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the largely negative backlash to Spicer’s appearance on social media. Far from the public becoming “numb” to Spicer’s conduct (or it being seen as “normal” or unremarkable), it was seen as aberrant, “yucky” (Washington Post), “strange” (The Atlantic), “not funny” (CNN), and a “gimmick” that was “astonishingly tone deaf” (GQ) and quickly “resulted in blowback against Sean Spicer” (Vanity Fair).

In fact, the great majority of words and actions—in general, but especially by the Trump administration—deemed “not normal” have been generally recognized as such and not only remarked upon but widely denounced. We need not rely on social media posts to plumb the depths of the dissatisfaction with Trump and his policies; polls and surveys reveal that most Americans disagree with Trump’s positions on myriad topics, including immigration reform, punishing players for NFL protests, the border wall with Mexico, tax reform, his view of the Charlottesville racial protests, withdrawing from climate change accords, trade agreements, and so on. Therein lies the obvious contradiction: The widespread perception that most Americans support Trump (or don’t care about school shootings) when abundant evidence indicates that the opposite is true. The idea that most Americans have a skewed view of what’s normal or appropriate in government or society is itself skewed—fueled, in part, by Trump’s own routine exaggerations of his popularity and widespread support. There’s irony in the fact that Trump’s staunchest critics seem to unquestioningly accept his claims lauding his influence and importance.

A friend of mine worried in a social media post a few weeks ago over the fact that he couldn’t recall details of another school shooting that had happened only a few weeks earlier and suggested he—and, by extension, perhaps most Americans—were becoming numb to the violence.

The poor recall of details he was describing, however, is ordinary memory degradation. It has nothing to do with whether the topic is school shootings or car repair or an overheard conversation in line at the bank. Human memory for recalling details (of anything, especially things we only heard about but did not personally experience, such as school shootings) drops off dramatically after about eighteen hours. I understand that people feel like the details of these horrific attacks should be forever seared into the public’s consciousness, but decades of memory research shows that’s not accurate.

There’s no reason most people would remember the details of each school shooting weeks or months later. Try this experiment: Name the details of any other events that were reported in the national news three weeks ago. Not something ongoing, but something that just suddenly happened, like a plane crash, a world leader being removed from office, a murder, etc. Can you do it? If not, why would we expect that the school shooting would be any different? The specific details and statistics about school shootings are not important or relevant to most people and their lives, so why would we expect anyone to know the names of the shooters and their victims, the dates, locations, motivations, and other details? Most people can’t even remember their important computer passwords. We are reminded to “Never Forget 9/11”—but how many of the 2,974 victims can we name?

Misleading Memes

Another aspect of the phenomenon is that people see (and share) misleading statistics. For example, a widely shared meme circulating in mid-February stated that there had been eighteen “school shootings” so far in 2018. This may help explain the sentiment that Americans have gotten used to these school shootings or have become “numb” to them. It’s easy to think that when you hear an alarming statistic like “a dozen school shootings already this year,” and you’re wondering why you didn’t hear about more of them, or how so many shootings could have escaped your attention or not had more emotional impact on you. When we examine this feeling, however, the fact that such a meme can elicit this (intended) effect undermines the notion of our numbness: the meme’s message is startling—as it was designed to be—because viewers are alarmed when confronted with the fact that so many shootings escaped their notice. This meme would have no effect at all if, indeed, viewers did not care about shootings. It would be met with a shrug and scrolled past rather than induce self-reflection. Instead, the meme caused many to wonder how they missed so many important news events—but did they?

It’s important to understand that the number reflects a very broad definition of “school shooting.” When you look at the breakdown of “school shootings” you realize that many were not incidents you’re likely to have heard about on national news or really cared about if you had: a suicide in a school parking lot, a gun that accidentally went off into a wall, a school bus window shot out with no injuries, etc. The phrase, as defined by the organization Everytown for Gun Safety—whose statistics are widely quoted—includes not only active shooters targeting students at school (i.e., what most people think of when they hear that phrase) but also accidents, suicides, events that didn’t happen at a school, non-injury incidents, and so on. People shouldn’t feel badly that they don’t remember details of events they likely never heard about.

Some have suggested that it doesn’t matter whether there were one, three, eleven, or twenty shootings at schools over the first two months of 2018; “even one is too many.” This is a common retort, but it is misguided; quantifying a threat is important to understanding it. That’s the position that Trump has taken on many threats to make Americans fearful, including attacks by Muslim extremists, and that’s the basis for his statements such as Mexicans are “bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Framing the scenario dishonestly as “one Mexican rapist is too many” clouds the issue rather than clarifying it with reliable data (such as the fact that immigrants are far less likely to commit a serious crime than natural-born Americans). Putting threats in perspective is one role of journalists and skeptics. A first step in trying to address or solve a problem is determining its scope and nature.

Questioning Assumptions

When we hear people on the news and social media concerned about Americans becoming “numb” to terrible things (such as shootings or violence) or aberrant behavior (especially by politicians or other presumably influential people) becoming “normalized,” it’s helpful to employ the skeptical dictum from CSI Fellow Ray Hyman: Before trying to explain why something is the case, be sure there’s something to explain—in other words, question your assumptions.

In this case, there seems to be little evidence that Americans have in fact become “numb to” (or unconcerned about, pick your synonym) mass murders or school shootings, nor do they think such events are “normal.” Yet the reaction on news and social media shows exactly the opposite: people are widely outraged and upset over recent shootings, not “numb.” There’s widespread calls for gun reform and mental health evaluations, student marches on Washington, protests against the NRA, discussions of a teachers’ strike in support of gun control measures, gun sellers such as Dick’s and WalMart imposing stricter constraints on gun sales, and even calls for the FBI director to resign. That’s quite a reaction for a numb country!

I suspect that people are (wrongly) assuming that political inaction on gun control is a result of American ambivalence to the violence. There are many reasons stronger gun control laws have not been passed, but they are not rooted in Americans being “numb” to massacres or school shootings. Conflating the two is neither accurate nor helpful. James Alcock, a psychologist at York University, offered another perspective: “What social psychologists have found over and over is that people almost automatically overlook the power of the situation as an influence on other people’s behaviors and instead attribute their responses or lack thereof to personal factors associated with the people involved. This is so ubiquitous that it is referred to as the Fundamental Attribution Error. And that seems to be what is occurring here.” Though marches and protests are happening, little immediate or measurable change is seen. Social movements take time, and government bureaucracy moves ahead at a glacial pace. There is no mechanism by which to immediately impeach a sitting president; the due process required to do so protects presidents of both parties. The lack of immediate action is wrongly attributed to public numbness or indifference instead of the real-world vagaries and delays of changing laws and policies.

There is of course such a thing as compassion fatigue, but I’m not convinced there’s much good evidence that Americans are (or have become) “numb” to mass attacks or school shootings—or really, by what measure one would determine that. I asked Stuart Vyse, psychologist, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, about the topic. He replied, “I would say that we don’t entirely numb to violence. Violence that is close to home and affects people like us or innocent children will always grab our attention and be Breaking News. I do think, however, that as mass violence happens over and over again it becomes typical. It is harder for us all to remember a time when these events were rare, and the American experience drifts away from that of other countries where mass violence is very rare or non-existent.”

As to the moving power of the anecdote, Vyse added that concerns about “the numbing effects of large numbers appears to be a real phenomenon. That is why a single dead child on a beach or the testimony of individual Florida high school children is going to be moving, whereas the thousands dead in Syria or Afghanistan are barely mentioned.”

We see the same thing play out in response to actions by the Trump administration. The president’s actions, tweets, statements, and policies are routinely and widely criticized as anything but normal. The Trump administration is continually described as chaotic, in turmoil, and routinely violating established political norms on subjects including nepotism laws, disclosing tax returns, sexism, unfilled positions, racism, staff turnover, using Twitter to abuse both private citizens and public officials, and dozens of other topics. Trump’s approval levels are at historic lows; most of his policy announcements on controversial topics (such as immigration reform, relations with North Korea, etc.) are met with derision, disbelief, and outrage. Indeed, NBC News noted that “Trump’s presidency has been defined by chaos.”

Unless someone can point to polls or surveys that indicate that most Americans think that chaos (in the White House or anywhere else in American life) is “normal,” I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Trump’s behavior and governing style are not, never have been, and likely never will be, considered “normal” by anyone. There is often a whiff of condescension among those who repeatedly warn people in their social media orbits that a given action is “NOT okay” or “This is not normal.” The identification of anomaly is treated as though it’s something not already widely understood and recognized; the implicit message is, “You’ve probably been fooled into thinking that Trump’s actions are normal and routine, but I know better and you need to understand that you’re wrong and not be complacent.”

New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a column (titled, of course, “Donald Trump, This Is Not Normal!”) in which he lamented:

To have a president surround himself with a rogue’s gallery of white supremacy sympathizers, anti-Muslim extremists, devout conspiracy theorists, anti-science doctrinaires and climate-change deniers is not normal. To have a president with massive, inherent conflicts of interest between continued ownership of his company and the running of our country is not normal. To have a president who nurses petty vengeances against the press and uses the overwhelming power of the presidency to attack any reporting of fact not colored by flattery and adoration is not normal. To have a president who apparently does not have time for daily intelligence briefings, but who can make time for the most trite anti-intellectual stunts, like staging a photo-op with a troubled rapper and twilight-tweeting insults like a manic insomniac, is not normal. I happen to believe that history will judge kindly those who continued to shout, from the rooftops, through their own weariness and against the corrosive drift of conformity: This is not normal!

I happen to agree with virtually everything Blow wrote. In fact, most people do, and evidence of this is all around us. Blow need not be concerned about fighting the “corrosive drift of conformity,” because he, I, and most Americans are not swimming against the tide on this issue; we are the tide. We see it every day, in the women’s marchers, pro-immigration protests, and elsewhere. There is much more that needs to be done, but instead of trying to convince people of something they already know, we can draw strength from our numbers and leverage our widespread support for change. In fact, the effort by Blow and others to cast themselves as the rebels, the lone voices shouting from rooftops in the face of (fictional) widespread opposition, may be counterproductive because it exaggerates the number and power of Trump supporters. It gives the impression that America is largely pro-Trump and endorses his policies and presidency. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; Trump lost the popular vote, and his approval rating is at historic lows.

Social movements are most likely to succeed when their champions emphasize the popular support behind them instead of portraying themselves as unpopular voices. When Delta Airlines broke its ties with the National Rifle Association—and then doubled down when financially punished by NRA-backed Georgia lawmakers, saying “Our values are not for sale”—they were surely aware that the majority of Americans are concerned about gun control. Other companies, organizations, and yes, even politicians, will be more likely to follow suit as it becomes clear they are siding with a majority, not a minor faction of outliers. Of course, there are still many Trump supporters across the country, but acting as if they are in the majority, or represent “normal” America, flies in the face of the facts.

If Trump’s aberrant conduct is in fact generally considered “normal” (appropriate, acceptable, unremarkable), then there should be countless other examples of similar routine social or political situations that are equally widely condemned or criticized. The fact is that—like you—most Americans are not numb to tragedies and have a pretty good sense of what is normal and what is not.

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).